Are you ready to move on from a life that’s exhausting and driven by thoughts such as “What will other people think?” We would like that for you as well. In contrast to healthier types of striving, which are motivated internally by your own set of goals and values, perfectionism is motivated and maintained by worries about what others will think. “Am I smart enough?” “Am I good enough?” “I must look pulled together today or others will know that I’m struggling.”
According to research and clinical work done by Dr. Brené Brown, at its’ core, perfectionism is a way of defending against that toughie of an emotion, shame. If you can be perfect enough (!), you might envision that you could be immune to shame, blame, or even criticism from others. Unfortunately, by disowning parts of ourselves that we don’t want others to see (particularly when we feel shame about them), we isolate, we judge ourselves, and we worry even more about what others might think. Now that we are aware that perfectionism often begins with shame, follow these steps as a primer on how to learn to decrease your perfectionistic behavior.
#1 Know your own triggers for shame. These are different for each of us and are often the first stop on the road to perfectionism and unhealthy striving. To find out what your shame triggers are, ask yourself these questions- How do I want to be perceived? How do I NOT want to be perceived? How do I feel when I imagine that others perceive me as I don’t want to be seen?
#2 Connect your thoughts about how you DON’T want people to think of you with your perfectionstic behavior. For example, if I don’t want to be perceived as “lazy,” I might be the first one up in the morning, striving to have coffee and breakfast made before the rest of the house is up, at the gym before work, and at work by 9:01 AM. In this example, I am using these unhealthy striving behaviors to try to manage the shame I feel around potentially being perceived as “lazy.”
#3 Ask yourself, am I ready to try to let this cycle of behavior go and consider letting others in to see the real me? Based on my example, this might look like, “Can I allow others to know that I get an average amount of work done everyday and that I do not have superwoman-level efficiency?” Ask yourself what the pros and cons are of doing so. Know that it is scary to put the real you out there and also know that not doing so can result in shame and additional anxiety.
#4 Learn to hang with shame. Take it to dinner and a movie and get to know it a bit. Ask it questions, take note when it pops by to visit you, and see what tends to come up when it’s around. Once we learn to identify and feel shame, it’s often not such a scary experience anymore and it no longer gets to drive our perfectionistic behavior.
#5 When you notice the urge to manage your behavior or are working to manage the perceptions of others, take a break and do something kind for yourself. You’ll be making the compassionate decision to put perfectionism away for a short period of time and instead, showing up for yourself, which can also help put shame to rest.
We hope these steps get you started on the path to decreasing shame and perfectionism. We are here to help if you’d like to continue this work.